The Meaning Behind These Popular Tattoos Is Stranger Than You Might Think…

Alfie PowellAlfie Powell in News, World
Published 08.07.20

Throw a stick in Shoreditch and you’ll find a million people with various different tattoos that all have various different meanings, but where do some of the most popular ones actually originate from?

If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, it’s often hard to know what to get, plus there’s the worry that you might accidentally get something that means you have a dirty foot fetish or that you think says ‘peace’ in Mandarin but actually means ‘tw*t.

I myself actually have a tattoo. It’s of a tiny white whale on my forearm.

Do I love Moby Dick? No. Do a have an affinity with the sea? Not particularly. Do I like whales somewhat? They’re fine – I mean, I wouldn’t want to get rid of them or anything.

In truth, I was just bored at work and spent my lunch break getting something because I saw a picture on the internet and thought it looked cool. My tattoo is what one might call meaningless; perhaps even an insult to tattoo culture.

There are proper tattoos in this world however, as well as people like Nick Horn from the Storyville studio in South London, who really do make inking an art form. Art Ink is a series that celebrates the artistry of tattooing while telling the stories of the artists themselves, and we caught up with Nick Horn himself to chat about tattoos and himself…

Clearly, traditional tats are pretty ubiquitous in society, so here’s the actual meaning behind some of the most popular ones you see today.

1. Swallows

Typically emblazoned across one’s chest, swallows are old Navy or Merchant Navy tattoos that symbolise every 5,000 nautical miles crossed.

While that may not seem all that impressive these days, back when these tattoos actually symbolised that, crossing 5,000 and 10,000 nautical miles was extremely arduous and dangerous, so they showed great experience as a seaman.

2. Pig and Rooster

You’ll find that most of these tattoos are reserved for sailors, who essentially just liked to show off how much sailing they’d done.

As well as doing a lot of floating, sailors were a very superstitious bunch – and probably still are – and had their fair share of things to keep them safe. As the likes of pigs and roosters were kept on ships in wooden crates, if and when said ships began to sink, the crates would allow for pretty handy flotation devices.

In homage to this rare bit of safety afforded to them, sailors would have a rooster tattoo on top of the right foot and a pig tattoo on top of the left.

3. Roses

Roses – back in the day and not necessarily now – had a female connotation, and would usually be tattooed on men to symbolise the love of a woman who they have left behind to go to war, to sea, or somewhere else (the moon???),whether that be their wife, mother or daughter.

These days they just look pretty and for the most part symbolise love; love that doesn’t need to have a great distance between it.


4. Snakes

As with most of these tattoos, most of these designs’ meanings are up for interpretation these days, but when they first started out, they were a symbol of something a little more set in stone.

Snakes are known for their power, prowess and adaptability, and often take on other animals bigger than themselves though their cunning and venom.

Tattooed on someone, snakes were initially used to represent the idea of ‘back off,’ or ‘don’t mess with me’.

Which is strangely the exact message I get from someone covered head to toe in tattoos…

5. Hinges

Sailors would get hinges on their arms where their joints were because they often got arthritis from pulling ropes.

As I mentioned earlier, sailors were a superstitious bunch who would try anything to stop themselves from getting ill or drying (bloody weirdos), and having hinges in their elbows would apparently stop them from getting said arthritis.

Oftentimes, they even had a charming little oil bottle tattooed next to them, as they thought this would keep their hinges limber.

We’ve really come a long way, haven’t we?

Images via Instagram